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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
January 15, 2003
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
1:27 P.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I'll give you a report on the President's day, then I have two announcements to make.
The President began his day with his intelligence briefing, followed by an FBI briefing. Then he convened a meeting of the National Security Council. He met earlier with astronauts from the space shuttle and the international space station crew. And he's been engaged in a series of policy briefings on a variety of matters throughout the day.
The President will welcome British Prime Minister Blair to Camp David on January 31, 2003. The United Kingdom is one of America's closest allies and a strong and valuable partner in the war on terrorism and the effort to eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. They will discuss a range of issues in the meeting and informal working dinner.
Also today, the President has announced through his Secretary of Agriculture, an important increase in funding for a healthy start for mothers and children. The budget for the WIC program will be increased to $4.77 billion, this is a nutrition program, as part of the President's 2004 budget. This is a record level of funding for this program, a $43 million increase over its level from last year, and a $737 million increase from its level in 2000. This will allow the program to benefit nearly 8 million low income mothers of children in 2004.
And with that, I am happy to take your questions. Mr. Fournier.
Q Generally speaking, why is the President opposed to affirmative action programs that give a preference based on race or ethnicity?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as a matter of his approach, the President has long been a supporter of what he calls affirmative access. Affirmative access is the President's way of recognizing that America is a stronger country because of our rich diversity, and he seeks ways to encourage diversity and to do so in a way that does not rely on either quotas or racial preferences.
Q Then why is he opposed to quotas and racial preferences?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that quotas and racial preferences do not serve to lift up our country and to help the average American. Instead, they have a tendency to divide people, to separate people who are deemed to be worthy of something, and have it taken away from them -- not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of simply a quota or something that is driven exclusively by race.
Q And, lastly, does he think that race should ever be a consideration in affirmative action programs -- or diversity programs?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to -- I'm going to hesitate to go any farther than that because the specific questions you're asking about now are under review as part of the decision that the President is making about the filing of the amicus brief in the case involving the University of Michigan.
Q What sort of diversity will the President endorse if he is, in fact, against the kind of program that the University of Michigan is defending?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the deadline, again, is tomorrow for the filing of this brief. And the President will make that clear as he approaches this issue. I think that it would be inappropriate for me to wade too deeply into this topic to try to give the answers for the President before he has a chance to do it himself.
Q Can you suggest what sort of things he might endorse, since we know what he opposes?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I've tried to give you the President's overall approach as his history as a governor and somebody who cares very deeply about education in America and opportunity in America. Beyond that, I think you really are going to have to wait for the President.
Q And do we expect that today?
MR. FLEISCHER: It could be either today or tomorrow.
Q Ari, can you describe a little bit about what the political discussion has been like on this issue within the White House? Apparently, the President has been involved very deeply in this.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President is dismissive of any notion of any notion involving the political implications of a decision on a matter as important and sensitive as something involving race and admission to college campuses, which is how Americans get their opportunity to make it in our country.
Q Well, if that's the case, then why is the President wading into this? Why is he making the decision? Isn't that what he has a Solicitor General for?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because it's a very important substantive matter dealing with race. And the President approaches his job as one where the most important substantive matters rise to the top. That means to him.
Q Let me ask you why you won't answer a very specific question of whether or not race should ever be a factor when isn't it true that this administration, that the Justice Department currently enforces regulations in the federal code that allow for institutions of higher learning to use race as a factor in admissions and for financial assistance?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I didn't answer it because I said the President will. That's why I didn't answer it, because I think it's appropriate to let the President answer these questions that deal with the specifics of something that will be known shortly.
Q What about the second part of the question?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there's no question about it. Take a look at the Leave No Child Behind Act. The Leave No Child Behind Act, the issue of disaggregating test scores involves issue of desegregating on the basis of race. That way, information about who is succeeding in our country can be used to lift all people up, by bringing help to those who need it most as a result of the disaggregated data.
Q You're not answering the question, Ari. The question is, why won't you say what this President believes about whether race should be a factor, when we know that the federal code calls for race to be a factor in admissions decisions or higher -- or financial aid decisions in higher education? And these are codes that have been enforced by the Justice Departments of his father and Ronald Reagan.
MR. FLEISCHER: I won't answer it, because the President will.
Q Senator Daschle says the Bush administration opposes -- if they oppose the Michigan preferences, they oppose civil rights. What's the White House's answer to Senator Daschle?
MR. FLEISCHER: Race is an issue that people need to -- to be brought together, not to divide. And to say because somebody disagrees with a position on matters dealing with race, it's wrong to suggest that means anybody in our society is against civil rights. And this is why it's been hard for our nation sometimes to bring blacks and whites and everyone together when people view people who have different opinions on the basis of principle as being opposed to civil rights. That's excessive.
Q Do you have any specific answers to Senator Daschle saying that the administration opposes civil rights?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think I just addressed it. Terry.
Q You said the President is against racial preferences because they're divisive. Is he against other preferences that colleges and universities routinely grant that people see as unfair? Like the one he got?
MR. FLEISCHER: I understand -- I understand all the interest and the specific questions dealing with the review of the University of Michigan case --
Q That is not what I'm asking.
MR. FLEISCHER: -- and the implications that come from whatever decision is made. I'm not going to go beyond --
Q I'm asking a question about fairness.
MR. FLEISCHER: -- I'm not going to go beyond where I've gone, because --
Q All right. Let me --
MR. FLEISCHER: -- be able to base it on reason and judge for yourself once you see what the President has concluded and why he's concluded it. And he'll share his thoughts.
Q But the general question about his feeling about fairness in America. When he was 18, he got into Yale University, which had and still has a policy of granting very special preferences to children of graduates, like him. Is that preference okay, to give him a leg up, but other preferences are not?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you're going to have a good understanding of how the President approaches the issue of opportunity and diversity when the President shares his thoughts publicly -- which is going to be, as I indicated, in some short period of time.
Q Senator Daschle also said that your North Korea policy has been flip-flopping. Is that a fair criticism?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, no, the administration rejects that criticism. It's been a very constant policy, where clearly it is North Korea has brought this on the world and the position of the United States is shared by our neighbors in the region. And it's unfortunate that somebody would make a statement that would imply that China, Japan, South Korea and Japan have flip-flopped. We stand together as a united group, a united group of nations dealing with the position that North Korea has put on itself.
Q And is the North Korean foreign ministry statement today, do you see that as their official response to your offer for a dialogue?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's always very hard to read North Korea. North Korea has a habit of saying very many inflammatory things, and then even their inflammatory things can sometimes contradict themselves. So can their private statements. We still await an official response from North Korea. And this is why North Korea has invited such concern around the world upon itself.
Q On Iraq, would the United States seek a second -- another resolution from the United Nations if the President decides military action is necessary?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President made it clear in his discussions with members of the Security Council after the first resolution was passed that the President would commit to consulting with the Security Council and with members of the Security Council on any eventualities thereafter. The President will keep his word. There will be ongoing consultations. And it's impossible to go beyond that in terms of guessing at what a specific result may or may not be.
Q Do you distinguish between consultations and a resolution?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly. That's exactly why I indicated I can't predict what specific actions might result as a result of those consultation.
Q Given the statements of a number of foreign leaders, including Prime Minister Chretien of Canada today, that they would not take part in any action without another resolution, does that concern you?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President will continue to work productively with other nations on this matter. And many nations have already weighed-in and said they don't think a second resolution is necessary. And whether somebody thinks a second resolution is necessary, or whether a different nation says a resolution is not necessary, the President will continue to work with one and all to build a coalition of the willing.
Q Ari, back on the University of Michigan, affirmative action means correcting a wrong, to find a balance. By President Bush saying race should not be a factor, does this mean that there is a balance?
MR. FLEISCHER: I didn't say President Bush said race shouldn't be "a" factor. I referred earlier to "the" factor, and that's one of the areas that has divided the nation and led to a situation where the very programs that are designed to help have led to polarization that has hurt in several cases. The President, as I indicated earlier, does believe diversity is an important national goal.
Q But does he find a balance? He's changed the word affirmative action to affirmative access. It's still the same thing. Does he find a balance, affirmative action means correcting a wrong to find the balance?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, when the President has made his judgments about this, these answers I think will become increasingly clear.
Q And a follow-up. How could he have this feeling that race should not be a factor when he is increasing funding for historically black colleges and universities?
MR. FLEISCHER: You keep using the word "a" factor and I keep using the word "the" factor.
Q "The" factor, "a" factor, "the" factor, I'm sorry.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's an important distinction.
Q Well, okay, granted. But why increase the funding for historically black colleges and universities?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because the President believes in diversity and the President believes in education. And he has increased funds sharply for historically black colleges and universities, and done so proudly. He thinks that's a worthy goal.
Q Is there a contradiction there at all?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think -- again, I think you haven't seen what the President is going to decide, so I'm not sure how you could even base the possibility of there being a contradiction when you're not aware.
Q Sources are saying. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: These are the same sources, I guess, who knew about the $300 billion tax cut. (Laughter.)
Q Is the New York Times and the Washington Post wrong? Is that what you're saying?
MR. FLEISCHER: When April says --
Q No, no, no, but be specific. You're dismissing sources. Are the stories that are in print today -- are they wrong?
MR. FLEISCHER: What's the contradiction?
Q What's the contradiction? Historically black colleges and universities are getting money and then you're saying that race should not -- they're getting extra money to be who they are, for the black community. And then you say that race should not be a -- I mean --
MR. FLEISCHER: All universities receive money, as well. So again, before you can rush to judgment about whether on the basis of sources something is a contradiction --
Q There was a specific commission made for historically black colleges and universities here, correct?
MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely. The President is proud to support them. And I think you will see when you are able to judge the President's opinion and you are able to read the administration's amicus brief, then you'll be in a position to have informed information about whether --
Q Can you give that to me, personally, tomorrow? (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: To the exclusion of everybody else?
Q Oh, yes. Because -- (Laughter.) That's okay. It's a not preference. (Laughter.)
Q Ari, without giving specifics about whatever the President may decide, how important of a statement is this going to be, as far as the President is concerned, regarding the whole issue? Senator Daschle called it a watershed moment. How essential or important is this moment, is his statement?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, frankly, I think many people outside the White House will reach their own judgments about that. From the President's point of view, the President does view this as an important matter. The President does think that issues involving how to provide educational opportunities and how to promote diversity are two important goals for our country. And so I think the President views this as an important issue.
Q And particularly for the country, for his party, in terms of where his party is on this issue?
MR. FLEISCHER: He views it as an important matter for his country, just as he viewed it as an important matter for his state when he had to wrestle with similar issues in Texas. And this is why the President has personally spent so much time on this issue. I've talked before about amicus briefs don't always rise to the level of White House attention or presidential attention. This one has because the President wanted it to. The President has spent quite a bit of time on this issue, talking with his staff, talking with the Justice Department, because he wants to make certain that this is a well-reasoned, well-considered and very thoughtful brief that represents the goals and the aspirations of the American people.
Q Ari, can you tell us precisely at what point the President began to pay attention and focus on this amicus brief? And you said the President is dismissive of the political implication of this issue. Can we infer from that, that Karl Rove was not involved at all in these discussions?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, on your first question, what I'm going to do is after the decisions are made and everything is public, what I'm going to do is attempt to provide you additional background briefings by some of the people who are deeply involved in it. And I think at that time we can walk you through a lot of what the President has been doing on this to be helpful. That's pretty much our standard practice on major issues of this nature. And I think at that time we can also discuss with you who the President has been talking to about the whole process.
Q A couple of questions, Ari. First, on the specifics of North Korea's comments today. They charge the U.S. wants to see North Korea disarmed and is tying aid to the disarming of North Korea. Is that true?
MR. FLEISCHER: Just as China has indicated, we, together, support a non-nuclearized Peninsula. That is not the same as disarmament. The President would like to see North Korea, which is one of the most militarized nations on earth, reduce its level of military threat and presence vis-a-vis South Korea. But that is a far cry from disarmament.
No, I think the statement that this is about disarmament by the North Koreans is a red herring.
Q As a matter of practice, does the President believe that North Korea can be trusted with nuclear power, given that South Korea, for example, gets about 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear power? Does the President believe North Korea can be trusted with nuclear power plants?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, under the terms of the nonproliferation treaty, you can be a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty and generate nuclear power. So it was within North Korea's rights to develop nuclear energy from a nuclear power plant for peaceful purposes, as a signatory of the NPT. I think there's some 188 nations now, and perhaps it's 187, nations that belong to the nonproliferation treaty, and every one of those signatories had the right to develop nuclear power.
Q So it's okay so long as they do so under the constraints of observers and other aspects of being a member of the NPT?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because it's the manner in which the power is developed that is under surveillance and under international agreements that makes it the peaceful purposes opposed to military purposes.
Q And if I can ask you one final question -- what can you tell us about the Texas Tech problem, bubonic plague samples apparently missing from a lab there?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm aware of the report, and this is a matter that the FBI and the CDC have been in touch with Texas Tech about. And anything further will come from them. That's the extent of everything I have on this now.
Q They're saying that the White House has been briefed on this.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q Your briefing was nothing more than --
MR. FLEISCHER: This is information that is just coming in to the White House and has been for just a short period of time, as well as to the FBI. I'm not in a position to give you any additional information at this time about it, and it's something that is being talked to with the FBI and the CDC to ascertain what all the facts are.
Q Not even to the extent of how much is missing, or how long it's been missing?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, these are all the facts that are being ascertained as we speak.
Q Ari, back on the Michigan case, the "a" versus "the" question. Does the President believe that race should be "a" factor?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think you will see when the President comes out with his -- when the administration files its amicus brief and all the information will be shared with you, you'll have the answers to these questions.
Q But you've indicated that he doesn't believe it should be "the" factor.
MR. FLEISCHER: This is asked and answered.
Q No, not answered.
Q No, not answered; asked. Asked repeatedly -- let the record show. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: Mr. Plante, I know that when the President answers the questions -- just as I indicated, the President will answer these, not his spokesman -- you'll have your answers.
Q We look forward to that. Bring him on.
Q But you don't want to make the distinction there between "the" and "a" --
MR. FLEISCHER: Ken.
Q Yes. David's question is mine -- you made, in answering April's question, you made -- laid great stress on the difference between race as "a" factor and race as "the" factor. The program at the University of Michigan that's under legal attack now, and most programs like it, use race as only one of many factors to determine whether you get admitted, or not. In what way does that program violate the principles -- the President's principles that you outlined earlier?
MR. FLEISCHER: You will have your answers as the President indicates his report.
Q Then why did you make the distinction --
MR. FLEISCHER: Because it's just exactly for the reason that I gave in the disaggregated data -- there are times when race is a factor in some of the actions of the federal government. Just as in the education provisions, we disaggregate data in testing on the basis of race.
Q Could it be "a" legitimate factor in determining --
MR. FLEISCHER: You'll know when the President makes his decision.
Q Ari, two questions. First, is the President planning to make a speech on this subject on affirmative action?
MR. FLEISCHER: In some forum -- and you'll be informed about exactly what type of forum it would be -- the President will share his thoughts. Whether it's in a statement or whether or not it's a spoken statement of some nature, you'll be fully informed. And I indicated that could be either today or tomorrow.
Q Secondly, some polls show that for the first time in an awful long time, the majority of Americans do not feel as though they are paying too much taxes. And is that going to make it difficult for you to sell the policy that the President --
MR. FLEISCHER: I hardly think that. First of all, the President has made the judgment he's made because he believes that a tax cut will be good to stimulate the economy and create growth. And, certainly, as tax cuts are enacted into law, the amount of people who express that poll-driven question with their pocketbook I expect will be remarkably, remarkably small.
Q Ari, on Iraq -- there have been some reports that Saddam Hussein has sent emissaries around to at least one Arab state to potentially discuss exile. Has any of this crossed your radar screen at all? Is this something that the White House has picked up on?
MR. FLEISCHER: You've known from repeated statements from both the State Department and here that if Saddam Hussein were to leave his country, that would be a welcome event.
Q But are you hearing that he actually has someone out there --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think at this point it's very hard to assess if Saddam Hussein has any interest in that.
Q The President has said that the difference between North Korea and Iraq is that diplomacy is somehow running out with Iraq, even though they've had a decade of broken agreements with North Korea, as well. So isn't the real difference here that North Korea has nukes and Iraq probably doesn't?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, actually, you say "a decade" with North Korea -- the facts of the matter in terms of North Korea's violating the agreed framework, the agreed framework was entered into in 1994. And North Korea began to violate it in the late 1990s, and that information didn't become knowable to the federal government and acted upon until the summer of 2002. And as soon as it was known, we acted upon it. And so I really differ with your time frame here to compare the two.
Q Isn't the possibility of war pretty much off the table mostly because North Korea has nukes and any war would be devastating in terms of casualties?
MR. FLEISCHER: The issue is exactly as the President framed it. The issue is that the President believes that this can be settled peacefully with North Korea through the use of diplomacy. And that's why we're working together with the other regional nations.
Q Ari, let me ask you about Social Security, if I may, and the GAO study which has come out today. And they examined several different aspects but certainly the headline-making one, as far as this briefing room is concerned, is the personal investment accounts and their belief that instituting such accounts would cost the federal government several -- pardon me -- several trillion dollars over three decades. What's the reaction to that? And if that's an even -- if that's at all close to what your calculations are for the President's plan, where is that coming from, since the surplus --
MR. FLEISCHER: One, I haven't seen the report, so I can't comment on it specifically. I will tell you that all estimates of what to do to save Social Security necessarily involve costs. And there are only three places to get any of the costs paid for as the nation deals with the changing demographics of a much smaller work force supporting a much larger retirement population as the baby boomers retire. Those three places come from -- it's not rocket science -- either, one, increasing taxes on workers to support the older generation; two, decreasing the benefits to the older generation in order for them to be able to have benefits; or, three, creating a higher rate of return on the money that is taken in the form of taxes from workers.
The President believes that is the right approach to take. Those are the only three places where money comes from, to help to make sure we have a Social Security system for the future. The first two ways have been tried repeatedly without permanent success or long-term success. The President is bringing a different focus and new thinking to Social Security, particularly for younger workers.
Q The GAO is saying -- and I don't think you've disputed this in the past -- there are specific costs in creating personal investment accounts, now that the surplus is not available as an option for paying for this stuff right away. Have you guys figured out where it is going to come from, or are you abandoning that plan?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the same argument could be made for those other two options, as I indicated. And so whether there's a surplus or a deficit, Social Security still needs to be saved, and the President's conclusion is the best way to save Social Security is not by raising taxes and not by cutting benefits, but by providing a higher return on the amount of money that's taken out of workers' paychecks in the form of payroll taxes. After all, that money right now receives a very measly 1 or 2 percent return, and the President would like to see a higher rate of return as a way to save Social Security.
Q Ari, throughout this whole North Korea issue, Pyongyang has repeatedly called for or demanded a nonaggression pact with the United States. No matter what other issues come up, it always comes back to a nonaggression pact. I know we say have no aggressive intent towards them, but what is so difficult in saying, all right, we'll do a nonaggression pact and just formalize our intent?
MR. FLEISCHER: The issue is not what is the United States going to do; the issue is, what is North Korea going to do. It is North Korea that stepped out of its commitments to the world and started to pursue the development of nuclear weapons in total violation of everything they agreed to. And when one sovereign nation gives its word and doesn't keep it, the answer is not that a different sovereign nation will, indeed, give it more. The answer is for the nation that broke its word to come back and keep its word. And in this case, North Korea needs to begin by dismantling its nuclear programs in a verifiable and irreversible way. That comes first.
Q -- then, if they actually started to do this?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President addressed that yesterday in the Oval Office. This is why the action must take place by North Korea. They must act.
Q The chairman of the Republican Party said the other day that the way to recover from the Trent Lott flap is to recruit more minority Republican candidates and get more minorities into Republican staff positions. How can you hope to do that if the President is going to oppose efforts to ensure that their sons and daughters of minorities have an equal chance to get into college as the sons and daughters of rich alumni?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think until you see the President's position you're not in a position to make judgments about it. So you'll just have to wait to see the President's position. And I think you'll have informed answers.
Q Is he looking at this with a view, though, that the Republican Party needs to reach out to minorities?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is looking at this -- it's a view that you will hear shortly.
Q Ari, the President said yesterday he was sick and tired of games and deception from Iraq. And yet on the ground, the inspectors, at least, are telling the press there on the ground that they're getting where they want to go when they want to go there. And Hans Blix said yesterday that there are months more of work to be done by these inspectors. What specific games and deception was the President referring to?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me make a couple points on that. Number one, if you saw some of the statements that were made by Dr. Elbaradei of the IAEA in Moscow this morning, he made clear that the inspectors are not satisfied with what Iraq has been doing. As he put it, "I intend to impress upon Iraq" -- this is a quote from Dr. ElBaradei -- "the need to shift gear from passive cooperation to active cooperation."
And if you recall in the report that was made to the United Nations by the inspectors, they cited a whole series of deceptions and evasions that Iraq is engaged in, including on the substantive level, inconsistencies in Iraq's -- and discrepancies with Iraq's description of its special munitions, illegal imports involving a relatively large number of missile engines, contradictions involving the chemical agent VX.
These are all items that Dr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei cited in their dealings with Iraq in just the couple-week or more-than-one-month period that the inspectors have been on the ground. They've also cited the list of scientists that Iraq turned over to the inspectors as being an absolutely inadequate list that failed to make a serious effort. So all is not so good from the inspectors' point of view as they review Iraqi cooperation and compliance.
As to some of the things that the President is talking about, I want to remind you that throughout the early to mid-1990s when there were suspicions about what type of programs Iraq had involving weapons of mass destruction, Iraq denied it had weapons of mass destruction. That lie was laid to rest when it was later discovered in 1995 that the head of Iraq's military industries defected. And he blew the whistle on the Iraqis and they lied about what they had.
And then, as the inspectors departed Iraq in the 1990s, here's what they knew was left behind that remains unaddressed today that gave rise to what the President said yesterday. The regime forced to admit that it produced more than 30,000 liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents. The inspectors concluded that Iraq likely produced two to four times that amount. That's a massive stockpile, and it's never been accounted for and it's capable of killing millions. It remains unaccounted for. The Iraqis did not account for it in the most recent briefing they gave to the United Nations.
Q Ari, some so-called experts are saying that with a big buildup of U.S. troops and weapons in the Persian Gulf area, America is too far down the road to war to turn back. Does the President feel the same way?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has made no decisions about whether or not we will go to war. Indeed, much of this still depends on Saddam Hussein, whether Saddam Hussein will get the message that time is running out and he needs to actively comply with the inspections and the inspectors.
Q Will Turkey allow us to use its bases and ports to attack Iraq? How much will that cost us?
MR. FLEISCHER: As always -- and I think you're used to this by now -- any dealings on anything operational, you need to check with the Pentagon.
Q Ari, how does the fact that there are no black Republicans in Congress affect the message that the President -- the message that you've been stressing today, a message of the national goal of diversity?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there's never been a black President yet, it still remains an important goal. So I don't think it matters whether or not somebody is of one race or another; it matters what the policies and the ideas are that they espouse. And that's how this President approaches it. This is about policy, this is about helping people, and doing so in a way that treats people fairly and provides opportunity.
Q As titular head of the Republican Party, does he feel that this might pose a credibility problem for him on this issue, when there are no black Republicans in Congress?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, as I addressed it, that this is a matter of substantive issues and policy and that's how the President has been approaching it.
Q Has a decision been reached on how to address the problem of surface-to-air missiles and commercial airlines? And, secondly, who would pay for that? Are the airlines going to end up having to pay for those safety features?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, as I indicated this morning, there continue to be conversations about that and I anticipate you can -- those conversations will continue. There are many different types of ways to provide increased protections to the traveling public from the remote threat of this possibility. And those are all being discussed by the FBI, by the Transportation Security Administration, the FAA, National Security Council, et cetera.
Q But you said steps have been taken care of this morning. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, as I said to you this morning, Bill, there's -- some of the steps -- some of these things involve proliferation. Some of these steps involve things that, as I indicated, the traveling public will never be able to know about.
Q Ari --
MR. FLEISCHER: Go ahead.
Q There are reports coming in from the states that approximately 1 to 2 million Americans are being knocked off the Medicaid roles in connection with the general austerity policies which the states are forced to impose on their budget, of which usually Medicaid is the second largest expense that they have. Given that these people are not going to receive the benefit of the tax cut, does the President have anything to offer them --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, on the federal level, Medicaid is an entitlement. And so, therefore, no matter what the number of people are on Medicaid or whatever the status of the federal budget is -- in good times or bad -- if you qualify under federal law, you are entitled to it. And so that provision remains in effect to provide the maximum amount of services to low-income people who have health care needs.
Q But effectively, the law is being changed, that there are limitations being placed. Not only are people being deprived of Medicaid, but also the benefits that were generally offered are being cut because of the necessity to cut the budget. Last year there were 75 senators who proposed a larger federal contribution to Medicaid. And that was opposed by the White House. Would the White House -- given the new circumstances now, serious circumstances for these people -- change its mind with regard to the federal --
MR. FLEISCHER: No. And I just gave you the answer to how the federal role in Medicaid works.
Q Ari, two things. Last week Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said that soldiers drafted to service in the military, "added no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services." The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation called this an egregious slur and a great insult to the memory, sacrifice and valor of those who lost their lives in Vietnam. One Vietnam vet, Thomas Gohan (phonetic), of Rochester, New York, said this, as a draftee who spent a year of his life in Vietnam: "I would like to suggest that perhaps my inferior service to our country wouldn't have been necessary if those proud, flag-waving patriots like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the rest of the cowards had come forward to enlist. I would like to see Secretary Rumsfeld repeat his speech in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day."
Does the President agree with Secretary Rumsfeld that soldiers drafted to service added no value to the United States armed service?
MR. FLEISCHER: Russell, Russell, Russell, while I'm honored that you chose -- in the face of a Rumsfeld briefing at the same time as mine -- to come here, I'm sure that if you took the entire text of what Secretary Rumsfeld said to Secretary Rumsfeld and asked him, and shared with him the entire context of what Secretary Rumsfeld said, you would have thought twice about taking any one statement. I think if you look at everything Secretary Rumsfeld said, you'd have a very, very different picture.
Q Can I have a second question?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. Connie.
Q Thank you. I'm reading the President's speech to the African nations, and he thanks them for their support and friendship in the war against terrorism. How much assistance has Africa given? I understand there's quite a bit of anti-Americanism now and sentiment against an Iraqi war in Africa.
MR. FLEISCHER: How much assistance have they given in which issue?
Q The anti-terrorism.
MR. FLEISCHER: There are several nations in Africa, all have contributed in the war against terrorism, and are proud to do so, and work shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States. As always, our policy is that it's up to each nation to describe what their efforts are. But obviously, there are many African nations that are involved. Africa has been a victim of terrorism. Kenya is one of the most prime examples of a nation in Africa that has repeatedly been victimized by terrorists.
Q Part of the political swirl around this Michigan case is coming from conservatives who fear that the President is not going to go all the way and call for the abolition of racial preferences in college admissions. Is the President worried about losing political support from both his right and his left on this deal?
MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, the President is approaching this in a substantive way.
Q How much ground is the President willing to give in the Senate in order to get a compromise through on his tax bill?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, if you're asking me to negotiate in public, I thank you for the honor, but that's something that the President is not going to do. The President is going to fight for the bill that he proposed. He understands that Congress, of course, has an important role to play and they are just beginning the process of playing that role. But let the process begin and the President is going to fight for the plan that he sent up there.
Q How difficult is the battle going to be in the Senate?
MR. FLEISCHER: That remains to be seen.
Q Ari, on the Venezuelan crisis, is the President directly involved in the negotiations to form the so-called group Friends of Venezuela? And why is the United States opposed to the inclusion of Brazil in that group?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is being led by the Organization of American States and is being handled principally by, as you would expect, the diplomatic channels through the State Department. This is an issue which the administration continues to monitor and monitor closely, because of the delicacy of the situation involving Venezuela and our hopes that the difficulties and the violence there can be resolved through peaceful, democratic and constitutional means.
Q One more on the topic of race. Does the President consider racial diversity a plus when it comes to hiring people within the White House or within the administration?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I defer on all questions until you see the President's --
Q You can't defer something that has nothing to do with this case.
MR. FLEISCHER: I just did.
Q Wait a second, Ari. I don't think -- I think people expect to have that question answered when it comes to hiring practices at the White House. It doesn't relate to college admissions. I'm asking you whether he believes --
MR. FLEISCHER: In the obvious context of what is about to happen and is pending, in terms of you being able to hear from the President about this --
Q It has nothing to do with the case. It's an issue. Has anybody within the White House ever said that it was a plus, that racial diversity was a plus within the White House when it came to hiring, or within the administration?
MR. FLEISCHER: April.
Q Ari, back on the balance issue. When -- I'm going to try to phrase it to get an answer out of you -- when was there a balance in racial diversity in America where affirmative action or affirmative access is not needed?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think that you will see a point here very soon where you will have many of these answers to your questions. And I think it's appropriate that these come from the President, who is in the middle of these decisions.
Q And you also said something -- wait a minute, you also said something important, the first black President. You said, that's a major goal. Tell me about that. Why is it such a major goal?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the question was, is it because there are no Republican members of Congress, does that affect the ability to make sound judgments about issues as important as policies involving race and affirmative action.
My point was, it's not so much the color of somebody's skin as much as the policies they espouse that help lift our nation up and bring us together, particularly from the government point of view, because good ideas come from everybody in our government, not only based on the color of somebody's skin.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:05 P.M. EST
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